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Open your ears

By Donald Attwood


Catbirds are wonderful singers, more often heard than seen. Mostly a uniform grey, they have a dark streak on the crown and a rufous (reddish-brown) patch under the tail.

In daycare long ago, our daughter was urged to open her ears, to listen. She learned how, and I’m trying to learn the same. It helps keep the peace at home and also helps while birding.

When I started going on group field trips, I misunderstood what the guides were doing. They led us around, and I supposed that we would stop wherever birds were be seen. When we did stop, I’d be looking around, trying in vain to see whatever birds had been spotted. It was months before I began to perceive the guides’ method, which often begins with listening.

Last year I started learning which songs were sung by which birds. You have to hear them, locate them with the eyes, and then remember the connection between sight and sound. (That third step gives me the most trouble.) Now I can recognize, for example, the voice of the ubiquitous Song sparrow. And the varied songs of cardinals and robins have come back from childhood. When I don’t see these birds, I enjoy their presence by hearing their voices.

This spring, when the trees were leafing out, I passed a personal milestone. I was walking the main trail in the Clarke Sydenham Nature Reserve, in Hudson, along fields bordered by dense trees and shrubs. At first I thought I’d heard a robin, but the bird in question was singing an extended aria. (Robins normally sing in short phrases.) As I listened, the singer began introducing melodic variations accompanied by a flurry of squeaks, trills, and whistles. (Robins don’t seem to extemporize.)

I realized I was hearing a Grey catbird doing one of his extended improvisations. In eastern North America, the other bird that sings like this is the Northern mockingbird, which is in the same family as the catbird. But mockingbirds live farther south and seldom visit Quebec. Both species mimic a wide array of sounds, while the catbird’s signature call is its meow.

That was in late April, and this one had arrived about two weeks early. I was peering into dense thickets, trying see him and confirm who he was. Catbirds are not always wary of people, but they’re grey and like to hang out in heavy foliage. I followed as this bird moved along the hedgerow and never caught a glimpse. I knew his movements only because he sometimes stopped singing and then resumed from a nearby thicket. The chase went on for more than 20 minutes, allowing me to hear six fine arias. Eventually he flew to an open branch, but the light was poor, and I couldn’t swear that his grey silhouette was not some other bird.

Despite this lack, I opted to list him on the eBird app, which keeps track of all my birding expeditions. This app offers a list of species seen in this area at the same time of year, but the catbird was not listed up front. (Normally this is a great advantage; eBird hides the flamingoes and other species seen only in other regions.) The catbird was found on a hidden list, but then eBird wanted me to explain why I thought I was seeing this bird so early in its spring migration.

I’d argued with eBird before over matters like this. Last spring, I thought I saw a Veery at an early date, but the administrators on eBird told me I hadn’t. The Veerys were a long way off, returning from their winter home in South America; it had to be a Hermit thrush. I yielded on that point, but with the catbird, I had no such intention. I wished, however, that I’d had a clearer view to back up my description of its song. (In fact, with unusual sightings, eBird likes to have a photograph or sound recording to confirm the ID, but I was not equipped to provide such evidence.)

To my astonishment, eBird accepted my sighting of the too-early catbird. It even labelled this a ‘confirmed’ sighting, suggesting, perhaps, that someone else had made an early report from our area. It was a great feeling, to identify a relatively unfamiliar species (new to me these last couple of years) by ear alone, and to have that confirmed.

Where I grew up, level train crossings were sometimes marked with a simple wooden ‘X’ on a pole. The limbs of the X were lettered as follows: Stop. Look. Listen.

This is still good advice.